News that Albemarle County was planning to move Sally Armentrout’s daughter to Walton Middle School for her fifth-grade year was like a “punch in the gut” after a difficult year.
“I just wish there was one year where our children didn’t have to be so tough, where they could return to school, and they could be kids,” Armentrout said.
Like what appears to be many other Mountain View Elementary parents who have rising fifth-graders, Armentrout doesn’t like the plan, which is aimed at easing overcrowding at the elementary school, and she wants more information about how the move will work. Parents were told in a community meeting last week about the plan. Fifth-graders at Walton would be taught by Mountain View teachers, but follow a middle school schedule and ride buses with other middle school students.
“Do not deprive our children of a fifth grade experience. Invest in our kids by using an elementary school schedule, minimizing bus time, providing after-school care, allowing a comparable amount of play time and providing playground equipment,” Armentrout said at Thursday’s county School Board meeting.
The roughly 115 students who would be affected by the move, which division officials say is not a done deal, were last in a school full-time as third-graders. Armentrout wants her daughter to have one more year as an elementary-schooler and access to all of the leadership opportunities that come with being the senior students in a building.
“My daughter has grown up with Mountain View,” she said. “My daughter has grown up with these teachers. My daughter knows those hallways like the back of her hand. My daughter has talked about what it would be like to be one of those fifth-graders who gets to help give tours to the incoming kindergarteners. It is the pride that these students have of being the oldest in the building.”
Other parents who spoke against the plan at Thursday’s meeting asked the board to delay the move and implement the steps taken in previous years when the school was overcrowded. In their comments, they highlighted what they see as the unfairness of the plan, inequities for students and a lack of transparency in the decision-making process, among other issues. All of the comments were opposed to the plan, though some parents spoke in favor of it at a meeting for parents Wednesday.
The division is expecting 704 kindergarten to fifth-grade students to enroll at Mountain View for the coming academic year. The school’s capacity is 624, which does not include pre-kindergarteners. In the 2019-20 school year, 721 students enrolled — 91 more than projected.
“That experience proved that we did not want to do it again,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, the school division’s chief operating officer, at the parent meeting Wednesday.
Armentrout and other parents said they first learned of the division’s plan when they went to sign up for after-school care, which was not available to rising fifth-graders at Walton. Last week, they heard more about it in a virtual community meeting about plans for the 2021-22 school year. Since then, parents have organized on social media and shared concerns with School Board members and administrators.
At the parent meeting Wednesday, schools Superintendent Matt Haas said that he expects any decision that affects families and students in a significant way should be reached collaboratively and in a transparent way.
“I fell short on these expectations so far, with regard to tonight’s topic,” he said at the start of the meeting. “And for that, as the leader of our organization, I take full responsibility, and I apologize for that.”
Haas said the final outcome will be based on the facts.
“I am aware that the most desired outcome for all Mountain View students is to attend Mountain View,” he said. “… We have a good deal of experience with and know how to provide students with the best possible learning environments, and it is my intention [that] current research about how students learn and grow best in school will be put to use in our decision-making process.”
Mountain View is the second-largest elementary school in the county, after Brownsville, and one of the most diverse.
Not all of the fifth-graders are zoned for Walton, though, and would attend Burley Middle School for sixth grade. Implications for students who would go to Burley was the focus of several questions and comments at Thursday’s board meeting.
“The move to Walton is unfair for all of the fifth-graders, but it’s terribly inequitable for the students in the [Southwood] community especially,” said Kristin Clarens, a Mountain View parent who works with families in the Southwood neighborhood and helped some parents to access the meeting.
One Mountain View student, who spoke in Spanish and then English, said a lot of children don’t want to move from the school “because we’re like a family.”
Schmitt said the plan for fifth-graders is just for next school year, and that administrators will reevaluate for the next group based on capacity needs and student experiences.
Because of capacity issues and social distancing, 60 current fifth-graders are attending classes at Walton, which division administrators have said has gone well. Parents interviewed and who spoke at Thursday’s meeting, however, said they want to see the data driving that assessment of this school year.
A six-classroom, $6.2 million expansion of Mountain View is in the works, along with a study for long-term solutions such as building a new school or redistricting. The school has been expanded twice since opening in 1990.
Keeping fifth grade at Mountain View would mean using the music room, art room and other spaces in the building as classrooms, along with trailers, among other changes and tradeoffs.
“All of which compromise the quality of service offered to students and do not meet the quality that [Albemarle County Public Schools] expects,” Schmitt said.
The division’s typical immediate solution to ease overcrowding is installing trailers; however, that option isn’t feasible for the Mountain View campus, according to Schmitt’s presentation. Potential sites for a trailer would either be on a field farther away from the building with obstructed sight lines or near construction for the addition.
Jennifer McArtor, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, said in an interview that overcrowding at the school isn’t new and questioned why it’s now being treated as an emergency. In previous years, she said students didn’t feel the impact of the enrollment growth, which she credits to the school’s teachers and staff.
“If we didn’t love our Mountain View community, we wouldn’t be fighting so hard to stay there,” she said.
During the parent meeting, division and school administrators explained the reasoning behind the fifth-grade move in greater detail, providing more information about the logistics. They also heard from a range of parents. The division is going to review enrollment data and share it with the community throughout the summer. July 20 is the latest point at which plans can be changed.
Currently, 656 students are enrolled for the next school. If that number doesn’t change much, fifth-graders could stay at Mountain View. However, 101 children are already signed up for kindergarten, which Schmitt said is higher than usual for this time of year.
“Kindergarten is the big wild card,” she said.
Parents asked about the logistics of having fifth-graders at a middle school, from busing plans to the daily schedule to which school the students would actually be part of. They wanted more detail about other assessed options and more transparency about the decision-making process. Some parents were supportive of the Walton proposal, citing the opportunity for smaller class sizes versus an overcrowded school.
At Walton, students would follow the middle school schedule, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and ride buses with the middle-schoolers. The elementary day is typically from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Walton Principal Josh Walton said the schools are exploring after-school care opportunities for the fifth-grade families, and that the Mountain View fifth-graders would be considered Walton students.
School Board member Jonno Alcaro said during Thursday’s meeting that he would like to have more discussion about the longer schedule.
Haas said at the end of the meeting that the division will be putting more information out about next steps in the coming week.
“Many of the things I’ve mentioned tonight are legitimate concerns around after-school care for students, transportation, the schedule at the school,” Haas said. “Those are all obviously very legitimate concerns that those folks are raising, and we will do the best we can [to address them].”